French unions vote to extend strike but govt firm

By Daniel Flynn and Gerard Bon

PARIS (BestGrowthStock) – French unions voted on Wednesday to extend a rail strike and blockaded supplies from oil refineries and the country’s largest fuel port, but the government stood firm on its pension reform plans.

A 24-hour national strike on Tuesday against a plan to raise the retirement age, the largest of five one-day protests since June, raised pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy to compromise as the reform neared final approval in the Senate.

Unions, which said Tuesday’s protest attracted 3.5 million marchers, said initial votes from local meetings throughout France on Wednesday showed support for extending the stoppage in the state railway sector, the bedrock of the protests.

Massive backing for an extended strike would turn the screw on Sarkozy’s government, which needs to overturn the opposition Socialist Party’s lead in opinion polls before 2012 elections.

“Around half the meetings have voted. They have all voted to extend the strike,” said a spokesman for the CGT union. Most meetings agreed to extend the stoppage until Thursday, he said.

In the energy sector, workers halted the transport of fuel from eight of France’s 12 refineries, with unions also blockading a handful of the country’s 160 fuel depots, raising the prospect of petrol shortages.

The Paris metro and regional train network were affected by mild disruptions. The state railway company SNCF said a quarter of workers stopped work, down from 40 percent on Tuesday.

However, the government, which put the number of marchers on Tuesday at 1.23 million, said it would press ahead with a reform it sees as essential to restoring state finances to health and retaining France’s AAA credit rating.

“I’m not denying there were a lot of people in the streets but at the same time what can we do? Not reform the pension system?” Labour Minister Eric Woerth told RTL radio, saying only minor amendments were possible before Senate approval.

Sarkozy’s government says the reform is needed to balance a pension system which would otherwise bleed 45 billion euros a year by 2020. The legislation raises the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60, and lifts it to 67 from 65 for a full pension.

UNIONS PLEDGE TO CONTINUE

Opposition and government senators said they hoped to end discussion of the bill soon, possibly before the weekend.

Unions, which overturned a 1995 attempt to reform the system with 24 days of strikes, said protests would continue regardless of whether the bill passed the government-controlled Senate.

With unions at five refineries, including four operated by Total, starting progressively to shut down production and France’s biggest oil port at Marseilles hit by a two-week-old strike, oil sector lobby UFIP has said fuel shortages could affect petrol stations in just over a week.

Television reported some people in southern France were already starting to hoard fuel.

With nationwide marches planned for Saturday, union leaders said that if regional meetings extended the strike, it could continue until at least the weekend.

“If we get past the weekend, we will not stop,” said Bruno Duchemin, general secretary of the Fgaac-CFDT rail workers’ union.

Analysts said the main risk to Sarkozy was if protests spread to university students and those angry at his broader agenda. In an attempt to defuse tension, his UMP party said on Tuesday it would review an unpopular tax ceiling for the rich.

“There is an increasing probability the government will seek deeper negotiations over the proposed reforms to counter the increasing protests,” said Barclays analyst Laurence Boone, saying it might let some groups retire on full pension at 65.

(Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery, Thierry Leveque, Mathilde Cru, Emmanuel Jarry, Yann Le Guernigou and Emile Picy; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

French unions vote to extend strike but govt firm